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Daylight retreats fast on the equator, quickly overtaken by night. In Africa, the empty darkness is full of possibilities. We were looking for lions with no luck. Instead, nature delivered a real gem – a melanistic serval.

melanistic serval on safari

All of us trapped in end-of-the-day-thoughts, eyes focused on the narrow beam of light as the spotlight swept. Rhythmically, back and forth, and then someone yelled, “Stop! Eyes!” But what eyes? Too tall for a nightjar, too suspicious for a hare. Worth a closer look.

As we moved, so did the animal. We stopped, our action mirrored again. Slowly, we got close enough to see through the tall grass… An elegant serval cat on a soundless night-time patrol. The cat started to move again but stopped, ears pricked. We swung the spotlight around and found another set of eyes.

But this approaching creature failed to take a form in the darkness, just a set of illuminated orbs floating towards us. My brain scanned for a match and found none. This was something new.

The spotted cat in front of the vehicle made a mewing sound, reciprocated by the approaching shadow. And then I realised that the shadow was a rare melanistic serval – black as the night sky.

African safariA meeting seemed inevitable, but how would it end? Two cats, identical in shape and form but for a genetic mutation that had left one with a black coat. The dark animal approached cautiously, nearer and nearer, until the two bumped heads.

Watch the two servals interact here:

And the sounds began. Meowing, purring, hissing, low guttural statements. One cat seemed interested, the other apprehensive. The two rubbed heads and pawed softly at each other, seemingly oblivious to our presence. We watched, mesmerised. The two animals continued to interact for about fifteen minutes, moving around but never moving away from one another. Eventually, we reluctantly decided to leave them in peace in case our presence influenced the outcome of what we were watching.

Africa Geographic Travel

melanistic serval on safariI have no idea what kind of behaviour we witnessed. Maybe it was a courtship ritual, and maybe it was two acquaintances refreshing bonds. Maybe it was an exchange of passive aggression and acts of submission. I know this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and driving home, I was elated and excited to remember that every trip into the African bush can produce unbelievable surprises. Read more about servals here.


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Africa Geographic Travel
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